Participants of the Savannah VOICE Festival will sing their hearts out Aug. 21 for a chance to be named an Opera Idol.

An annual event at the festival, Opera Idol gives young singers the opportunity to showcase their best material. Richard Russell, who is the executive director of the Sarasota Opera Company in Sarasota, Fla., is one of the judges.

"The Savannah Voice Festival works with a number of young singers," he says. "They present themselves to the judges.

"We look at it from a number of angles. I'm looking at it from the point of a director of an opera company.

"I'm always interested in hearing young singers," Russell says. "I hope we give them some good feedback."

Held at the Charles H. Morris Center, Opera Idol is presented in a master class setting. The singers will work with festival founders Sherrill Milnes and Maria Zouves during the competition.

"We will feature some of our shooting stars in Opera Idol," Zouves says. "It's a great way to lead into our last week of our fifth anniversary. We are so proud to present these incredibly talented singers, and we know you all will be just as dazzled by their talent as we are."

The judges are all opera professionals who will listen to the singers and give them feedback. But ultimately, it is the audience who will select the winners.

The singers compete for prizes and opportunities. Opera company directors like Russell listen to them and consider them for possible roles or appearances at their venues.

"We'll see them evolve," Russell says. "This is a great opportunity to hear young singers, some of whom may be ready to start a career, but some who aren't ready yet. I always keep notes about the singers, who might be ready now or ones I want to be on the lookout for."

The singers get valuable advice from the professionals.

"When you're doing this kind of thing, you want to choose the thing that shows you off the best," Russell says. "We want them to be sure to take advice from the teachers at the festival and sing what they feel most comfortable to present to us."

Chances are each singer will sing only one song, so it must be the best they have to offer.

"This will be the third time I've done this," Russell says. "The format has changed every year a little bit.

"It's a fun experience. As a former singer myself, I'm always anxious to help and give them the benefit of my experience.

"I don't pretend to know all the answers," he says. "As someone who runs an opera company, I have a perception they might not necessarily get."

Recently, Russell had the opportunity to listen to 44 singers.

"I hear a lot of singers over the course of a year," he says. "Our perspective is different from what they get from a teacher in the studio. I love participating in this kind of thing because I want to help them avoid the mistakes I made."

Singers tend to make the same mistakes, some of which are more common than others.

"I think the biggest mistake for choosing an audition piece, it's choosing a piece that doesn't show them to their best advantage," Russell says. "Sometimes singers try to be too artistic, to show how intelligent they are as singers.

"As a result, that may hide some of their best qualities. This happened in a show last year.

"I heard a young singer who did a wonderful job, but she was trying to be too artistic," he says. "She was trying to sing the song beautifully and it was a little too soft to create an effect."

His colleagues wrongly thought the singer didn't have enough power in her voice. Russell advised her to sing the song to show her strengths.

"I told her, 'I want to hear what you have to offer,'" he says. "'Show me the voice you have.'"

Russell became interested in opera when he was in the fifth grade.

"I always loved to sing and was introduced to opera by a teacher," he says. "It's been part of my life since I can remember."

At the Sarasota Opera Company, Russell oversees a young artist program there.

"It's a wonderful experience, much like what VOICExperience does in Savannah," he says "It's a regular part of what we do.

"I also think it's very important from my perspective to help perpetuate this art form. I've heard too often in the last decade that opera is declining and we're losing our audience.

"I don't believe any of that is true," Russell says. "We have more people coming to the opera every year. We have an excellent repertoire and people who are becoming engrossed in what we do. We make the case that opera is a vital art form."

Russell has participated in four Savannah VOICE Festivals.

"I really enjoy watching what they've done with this," he says. "It is really amazing to see how the community has embraced it."


What: Savannah Music Festival's Opera Idol

When: 6:30-8 p.m. Aug. 21

Where: Charles H. Morris Center, 10 E. Broad St.

Cost: $42